Who is Steven Millhauser? He is an American writer. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner. He is the author of a recent paean to the short story. Drawing an analogy to William Blakes world in a grain of sand, he writes in a New York Times essay that the short story concentrates on its grain of sand, in the fierce belief that there right there, in the palm of its hand lies the universeIn that single grain of sand lies the beach that contains the grain of sand.
Millhauser is also, perhaps unbeknownst to himself, an excellent political theorist. His idea that the small moment encloses the large maps surprisingly well onto the personality pageant that is Election 2008. According to his grain of sand model, no incident is too tiny from which to construct an overarching narrative.
Take political coverage, for instance. Candidates must take especial care when uttering anything in a public forum; the efficiency with which throwaway statements are enlarged, diagrammed, and deconstructed would do the academy proud. Barack Obamas reference in front of an Iowa crowd last year to the rising price of arugula (as opposed, one imagines, to iceberg lettuce or a nice thick T-bone) was touted by many as proof of his elitist disconnect from middle America. The official comment that John McCain was aware of the Internet was neatly transfigured into an image of the Republican as an old fogey hunt-and-pecking at his dusty Underwood.
Millhausers method was also at work onstage at last Thursdays vice-presidential debate, in which candidates attempted to distill their entire lives and political philosophies into 90-second responses.
Countering a charge that upper-class tax increases would hurt the economy, Joe Biden launched like a mad bus driver into a breathless verbal tour of his hometown, beginning with Union Street and a mom-and-pop restaurant, accelerating through all the stops the current administration, taxes, Iraq, education, health care taking a slight detour to note his (working-class, blue-collar) predilection for Home Depot, and wheezing back into the station with a promise of change from Obama. To viewers at home, Bidens brief but intimate portrait seemed to say much more than any dense policy proposal.
Sarah Palins brief replies were similarly revealing. Her impressive verbal architecture ensured the maximum number of catchy phrases per minute; when theres so much to say, who has time to conjugate verbs? And she did succeed in conveying her dedication (to buzzwords, if nothing else). When the moderator asked what each candidate considered to be his or her Achilles heel, Palin assured the audience of her experience as an executive and connection to the heartland of America, before conceding that we are not perfect as a nation. But together, we represent a perfect ideal. And that is democracy and tolerance and freedom and equal rights. Those things that we stand for that can be put to good use as a force for good in this world. Whether this evasion was deft or dubious, Palins answer certainly conveyed her values.
Just as these individual moments reflect the spirit of candidates and citizens, the election itself acts as a microcosm for American society. This years face-off, in all its minute moments, plays like the trailer to an epic film about American life, starring all the A-listers War, Economy, Race, Gender, Age, Tina Fey and distilling with surprising accuracy the issues that define our national consciousness. Pretty big work for grains of sand.